Tonight marks the first meeting of the season between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Tonight also marks the first time ex-Steeler James Harrison will face his former team. If you watched any of HBO’s Hard Knocks series, you know Harrison is an angry man. And one has to think a portion of that anger is directed towards the Black and Gold.
Whether it was time for Deebo to move on or not, Harrison played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder. It fueled him to become a multi-time Pro Bowler despite being an undersized linebacker undrafted out of Kent State. It has also fueled his penchant for being a vicious headhunting sociopath. After years spent defending Harrison’s repeated attempts to cripple and maim opponents, tonight we’ll get a chance to see how it feels when we are that opponent.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs. BENGALS OFFENSE
The Bengals have made the playoffs two years in a row only to be undone by quarterback Andy Dalton. For as much flack as we gave Joe Flacco, he at least won some playoff games before breaking through last season. For the Bengals to make a similar jump from “contender” to “champion” (my fingers feel dirty for even typing that word), Dalton has to evolve from game manager to a guy capable of winning a game. Despite averaging 3,500 yards, 24 TDs and a 60% completion percentage through his first three years, Dalton has yet to really establish himself as an elite signal-caller.
Part of that is due to the one-trick pony nature of the offense. Despite boasting one of the game’s top three receivers in AJ Green, the Bengals offense hasn’t finished in the top 20 since Dalton’s arrival. Granted that trick is often more than enough to get the job done as the Steelers have found out on more than one occasion.
Still, for Cincy to get to the next level, they needed more weapons. To that end they added first round pick TE Tyler Eifert to go along with 2010 first rounder TE Jermaine Gresham and took RB Giovani Bernard in the second. With two excellent pass-catching TEs to compliment Green and the two-pronged rushing attack of Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincy hopes to have finally put together an offense capable of hanging in with the league’s elite.
On defense, it’s Old Boss, meet the New Boss as Jarvis Jones gets his first start at Harrison’s OLB position. I won’t rehash the reasons why this is a great move, I’ll just simply say Jones gives the defense the splash play potential it sorely needs. He won’t be the only new starter as journeyman Kion Wilson will start at ILB for the injured Larry Foote. And he won’t be the only rookie seeing important playing time as S Shamarko Thomas will be the nickelback with Willie Gay moving up to starter (Tebow help us) since CB Cortez Allen re-injured his ankle last week.
I wasn’t too impressed with Wilson during the preseason but Foote wasn’t exactly Chad Brown out there so the bar isn’t too high. Hopefully Vince Williams, another impressive rookie, sees some playing time. The problem is the Foote ILB (also played by James Farrior) is responsible for calling out defensive signals. Why Lawrence Timmons can’t do this, I dunno. Maybe ’cause he went to Florida State. In any case, Farrior’s job inherited by Foote is now Wilson’s – let’s hope he knows the playbook.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
One positive from last week’s rancid performance is that there’s nowhere to go but up. A single long sustained drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger and the offense would be a step in the right direction. Whether or not they’re up to the task remains to be seen.
Isaac Redman gets yet another undeserved start at running back. Felix Jones may actually see action this week as he moves into the third down back/2nd string role. They’ll be running behind an offensive line missing perhaps the best center in football. No official word as of this posting but whispers out of practice seem to indicate newcomer Fernando Velasco is a strong possibility to start at center. If he isn’t ready, Kelvin Beachum will take the spot. Beachum wasn’t horrible last week but he didn’t distinguish himself either.
Besides, the Steelers desperately need Beachum to be the sixth lineman-blocking TE in running sets. Not that I have any great faith in Redman but the running game was definitely hurt when they shifted Beachum to center and were stuck with a bunch of lousy blocking TEs.
An improved running game is important to take some pressure of Big Ben. And he will be under pressure because Cincy’s defense features some of the best pass rushers in the game. Tennessee got to him five times with about a half dozen more knock downs and the Bengals have twice the talent the Titans do.
DT Geno Atkins is a budding superstar on a D-line that also features very good players in Domata Peko and Carlos Dunlap. The excellent linebacking corps has another budding star in Vontaze Burfict. He’s joined by Rey Maualuga and Harrison. The secondary is four deep with starters Leon Hall and Terence Newman backed by first rounder Dre Kirkpatrick and veteran Pacman Jones. Make no mistake, the Bengals have all the ingredients for one of the best defenses in football.
Finally, as loathe as I am to speak of it, many Bengals-Steelers games have come down to a game winning FG. The Steelers kicking situation is a bit muddied as StoneCold Shaun Suisham has a hamstring serious enough for the team to carry two kickers. If Suisham can’t go, longtime Bengal Shayne Graham will be counted on to step up.
Provided, of course, the game is even close.